Between Israel and many younger Jews here
stands a gaping cavern. Needed: a new narrative
to bridge the divide.
A nyone checking out some popular Jewish websites a few weeks ago learned a subtle lesson about American Jewry. On “mainstream” home pages, which appeal mostly to an older demographic — affiliated members of the Jewish community — were these: travel missions to Israel (jewishfederations.org); articles about “Israel’s Ethical Defense” and media coverage of the Middle East peace process (aish.com); several essays about relations between Israel and the United States (jewishworldreview.com).
And on “alternative” websites, read largely by younger, less-affiliated Jews, were these: features about “Hasidic Weed Dealers” and “Kate Hudson and Small Breasted Jewish Women” — nothing about Israel (jewcy.com); stories about Archie comics, bedsores, and Sarah Palin — nothing about Israel (heebmagazine.com); features about Alcoholics Anonymous, modern Hebrew poetry — and an essay, on military censorship in Israel, which states that Israel “constantly behaves as though its own Supreme Court doesn’t exist.” (zeekfoward.com)
The Internet home pages are the latest, admittedly anecdotal, confirmation of gaps that increasingly determine the strength or weakness of relations between the Jewish state and the American Jewish community. The gaps, both between American Jews and Israel, and between generations of American Jews, are widening, representatives of both generations say.
And this, also anecdotal: “I talked to one rabbinical student — a rabbinical student! — who said that, for him, Israel presented no real crisis, because he had no tie to it whatsoever,” says author Jay Michaelson.
Then there’s the empirical evidence.
“A mounting body of evidence has pointed to a growing distancing from Israel of American Jews, and the distancing seems to be most prominent among younger Jews,” Steven M. Cohen and Ari Kelman reported in a 2007 study commissioned by the Andrea and Charles Bronfman Philanthropies. “Insofar as younger Jews are less attached to Israel, the inevitable replacement of the older population with younger birth cohorts leads to a growing distancing in the population overall.”
Typical is one college student, Matthew Livi, a junior journalism major at the University of Maryland from Great Neck, L.I., who says, “We don’t talk that much about Israel. I don’t know too much about Israel.”
Next year, Livi says, he hopes to take a first-time Birthright trip to Israel.
Outside of some young Jews with intensive Jewish educations and strong Zionist feelings, primarily in Modern Orthodox circles, many American Jews today, born post-1948 and post-1967, think of Israel as a powerful “occupier” of Palestinian land.
If they think of Israel at all.
“I’ve loved Israel for decades, lived there for three years ... and so it is with the sadness that accompanies the end of any affair that I notice my love is starting to wane,” Michaelson, founding editor of Zeek, wrote last year. “In my social circles, supporting Israel is like supporting segregation, apartheid or worse.”
“As warmth gives way to indifference ... indifference may even give way to downright alienation,” Cohen and Kelman wrote. One of their findings: more than half of Jews under 35 say they would not view the destruction of Israel as a personal tragedy.
Which means less financial and political support for Israel, less tourism, less aliyah.
“I hear all the time” from young Jews,” ‘Just because I’m Jewish do I have to care about Israel?’” says Douglas Rushkoff, author of “Nothing Sacred: The Truth About Judaism” (Crown, 2003).
“Recent research shows that young Jews believe a connection to the State of Israel is not among the primary factors in determining the collective Jewish identity, the Ynet website reported recently.
Bottom line: young American Jews don’t care about Israel as much as their parents or grandparents do.
“All of the narratives that are so important to mainstream Jews [older generations] are guaranteed to reach a very limited audience [among younger, hipper Jews],” says blogger and marketing executive David Kelsey, who deals mostly with a young Jewish audience. If young Jews care about things Jewish, he says, their interests are centered more in such areas as arts, culture, humor.
“Mainstream” Jewish organizations that often base their fundraising pitches on Israel’s mythic history and contemporary existential threats risk sacrificing short-term financial needs for long-term viability — that is, they risk writing off the interests of young Jews, Kelsey says. “[The mainstream groups] don’t think long-term. They “get” it, they recognize the Jewish generation gap, he says. “They just don’t care.”
A change in attitudes may be traced to online websites that provide sources of news, often critical of Israel, that were not available to older generations. Who reads newspapers or watches network news in the under-40 crowd? And Rushkoff says the rise of independent Jewish education and identity programs — he cites the National Jewish Outreach Program’s Shabbat Across America — foster a Jewish pride unrelated to Israel.
“Brandeis University researcher Ted Sasson reminds us that young people have for years been more critical than their elders of Israel,” according to historian Jonathan Sarna. “Even decades ago, youthful organizations like the New Jewish Agenda and Breira dissented from Israel’s policies.”
This is more pronounced than ever. “Young Jews today often view Israel through the lens of contemporary media,” Sarna writes. “They fixate upon its unloveliest warts.”
Steven Bayme, director of the American Jewish Committee’s Koppelman Institute on American Jewish-Israeli Relations, says a drift of some young Jews from support for Israel is counter-balanced by an increase in committed contemporaries who have spent intensive time studying and traveling in Israel. “American Jewry is going in two directions at the same time.”
And not everyone agrees that many young American Jews are alienated from Israel.
“I don’t buy that premise at all,” says Rabbi Daniel Brenner, chief of education and programming at Birthright NEXT, the alumni branch of the organization that has brought tens of thousands of young Jews to Israel, erasing their indifference to Israel and Judaism.
Birthright is a celebrated success story. Smaller scale, but with similar goals is the Global Connection program of UJA-Federation, which creates personal ties between Israelis and American Jews.
“I don’t believe that the younger generation of American Jews is hostile to Israel,” says Amy Spitalnick, a spokesperson for JStreet, the “pro-Israel, pro-peace” advocacy group. “Rather, many are alienated by the polarization that has overtaken this issue on campuses and in our communities.”
Signup for our weekly email newsletter here.